Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Tinker Tailor Votive Willies

Caroline Lawrence with the artefact
It is a snapping cold day in February and I am hot on the trail of a Roman artefact from Rome's ancient port of Ostia, the setting of most of my Roman Mysteries series of books. The artefact – a small marble relief of four women and a baby – first came to my attention when someone posted it on an Ostia Facebook Group. We were all very excited because none of us had ever seen it before! A few quick emails told us that it was part of the Wellcome Trust Collection with the Science Museum. It was in storage at a museum repository in West London. As the only member of the Ostia Group based there, I volunteered to go and have a look. My motive was not unselfish: as an author of historical detective stories this is exactly the sort of object that can give me an entire plot line!

East Wing of Blythe House 1924
So on 2 February 2012, I take the train from Clapham Junction to Kensington Olympia, then walk to 23 Blythe Road. I've been to this part of London many times, (and even done a couple of book signings at Brook Green Books), but I never knew about the Victorian treasure box that is Blythe House. Built around the year 1900, its original purpose was to house the Post Office Savings Bank. At one time over a thousand female clerks worked here, segregated from their male counterparts for propriety's sake. They all used to enter via the East (i.e. back) Wing.

East Wing of Blythe House 2012
In 1979 the British Government bought part of Blythe House to use as extra storage space for the British Museum, the Victorian & Albert, and the Science Museum with the Wellcome Trust. The late Sir Roy Strong, director of the V&A called Blythe House "a marvellous building" and said it "should be not just a dumping ground but an exciting new complex for the public." It is a marvellous building. Still attached to the West Kensington Postal sorting office and minus the smokestacks visible in earlier photos, the distinctive red and white brickwork makes it look like a glorious confection of Lego blocks.

Shivering in my down parka, I arrive at the east wing of Blythe House, the same entrance used by all those female clerks. I go to a turnstile called Gate A and press the call button. Anyone can visit, but you have to make an appointment first. I have been put in touch with Ms. Katie Maggs and she has kindly agreed to meet me and show me the artefact. The place is maze-like even before I get inside, but I manage to find reception up some outside stairs. I check in with a porter behind a window. He gives me a yellow plastic pass. Katie meets me a few minutes later. She is young, warm, friendly and informative. With a degree in Classics from the University of Warwick followed by two MAs from University College London, one in Museum Studies and one in History of Medicine, she is the perfect person to tell me about the unusual artefact I'm about to examine.

As Katie leads me down a succession of corridors, stairs and passageways, I get a strong sense of deja vu. I've never been here before, but it seems terribly familiar. There is an odd 1970s institutional feel; it reminds me of the recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

'This place has an odd 1970s institutional feel,' I say. 'It's like something out of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.'

'That's because they filmed it here,' says Katie. 'They spent four days here last September.'

Toby Jones (Alleline) & Ciarán Hinds (Bland) on the roof of Blythe House

As a film buff and big fan of the movie, this is an added bonus to my visit! I learn that other movies and TV series were filmed here, (e.g. Minder and The New Avengers). You can also see an atmospheric short film called The Phantom Museum set in the maze of corridors, stairwells and storerooms at Blythe House.

Katie points out the willies
Our first stop is a nondescript door in one of those corridors. Katie has taken me here to pick up gloves, but really - bless her generous heart - she wants to show me some of the ancient treasures stored here. Henry Wellcome, an American adventurer and medical archaeologist, collected over a million objects to do with ancient life and especially medicine. The cream of his collection is on show in a permanent collection called Medicine Man at the Wellcome Collection near Euston, but there are plenty more goodies here in Blythe House. This particular room is full of shelves of clay body parts. These are the objects Romans dedicated to their gods if they wanted healing for a specific part of the body. I see dozens of heads, hands, feet, wombs, babies, breasts, & willies.

Yes, willies. If you couldn't wee or do other useful things with your dangly bits, or if you had some sort of boil or spot, you would dedicate a clay model of the appendage to the appropriate god. And you would pray very, very hard.

Votive eyes (& lead slingbullets?)
On the shelves I also see plaster casts of objects, e.g. a big bunch of votive intestines and the famous Babylonian divination liver in the British Museum. There are a couple of charming pigs. Why pigs? It was an agrarian society, deeply concerned with food and survival. If a farmer had a sick pig, he would offer a votive to the god. In addition to the large and medium objects on shelves, there are also drawers with smaller objects: grotesque faces, wooden nit combs, Etruscan false teeth, a flint knife, marbles, tiny votive statues and votive eyes, some of which look suspiciously like lead sling-bullets.

funeral slab with plug and hole
One funerary object in particular captures my attention: an inscribed slab with a plug over a carved hole into which the mourner could pour a libation of wine to refresh the ashes of the dead lying beneath. I knew about this custom but never realised that there was a special type of slab to make this easier. (I told my hairdresser about these libation slabs the day after my visit and she said a friend of hers often goes to his dad's grave with two beers. He drinks one himself and pours out the other in slurps for his father. I guess we're not so different from the Romans, after all.)

Henry Wellcome in Indian headdress
Henry Solomon Wellcome had a fascinating life. Born in a frontier log cabin in Almond, Wisconsin in the year 1853, his interest in archaeology was sparked by the find of an Indian arrowhead when he was only four. Five years later, his family moved west in a covered wagon and were caught up in a bloody Sioux uprising in Minnesota. Nine-year-old Henry helped his pharmacist uncle Jacob tend those wounded by arrows and tomahawks. These two incidents sparked his abiding interest in "primitive" peoples. Henry gained his love of medicine from working in his uncle's pharmacy. Later, he studied medicine, grew a moustache and went on an expedition to South America in search of quinine bark. In 1880 he moved to London to set up a pharmaceutical business with a friend. From then on, England was his base for travel all over the world. He met famous explorers, associated with cultured socialites and married the beautiful daughter of Dr. Barnardo. But his main fame is for all the artefacts he collected himself and through others, over a million during his lifetime. He was finally knighted and died at the ripe old age of 83, leaving his collection to the Wellcome Foundation, the Trust he himself established.

My three passions are the Romans, the Wild West and movies. In the oft-filmed Blythe House with its many Roman artefacts collected by an American born in the Wild West, those passions have come together in a delightful way. At the end of my hour with the charming and generous Katie, I am excited and enthused. And I haven't even told you about the object of my visit. That I must leave for another blog (which you can find HERE.)

P.S. You can find hundreds more fascinating objects on the Science Museum's great interactive website, Brought to Life. There is also a superb site devoted to Henry Wellcome. And, oh, all right! As you've made it to the end of this post, here is a picture of some votive willies. If you want to make your own investigation, start here.


  1. I love the word "willies." Wish I could get away with talking about willie votives and other sorts of decorative willies here in the states!

  2. One of the benefits of living in the UK. ;-)

  3. Anonymous3:19 PM

    Hi Caroline, thanks, I enjoyed your post. Blythe House is very atmospheric! You can see lots of the votives, and thousands of other images of Wellcome objects, on the Wellcome Images site http://images.wellcome.ac.uk. I found your site because I'm currently writing a paper (due for presentation next month) on the Roman votive 'willies' in the Wellcome Collection (their acquisition, display in Wellcome's Historical Medical Museum etc.)

    Jen http://exeter.academia.edu/JenniferGrove/About

    1. Hi Jen! I'd love to meet to talk about apotropaic devices. Email me at flaviagemina[at]hotmail.com?

  4. Anonymous9:40 PM

    I lived across the road to Blyth house thousands of people walked through those doors every day, I am now 65yrs old and I still love the building it holds fond memories, I have been worried for some time that the would pull it down, knowing that it is being used to house all these objects makes me happy, thank you I found it all very interesting regards Carmen Stevenson